Hirsch: Rexall Place ice was a nightmare for goaltenders

From Gretzky to McDavid, Rexall Place has been home to some of the NHL’s biggest stars. On April 6 the Oilers will play their final game in the historic arena.

The end of an era, the rink where dreams went to live and also went to die. Unfortunately, for me, it was the death of my dreams.

The last NHL game I ever played was in the City of Champions. Rexall place was not a friend of mine. The ice was fast and the players shot harder. In fact when the NHL was looking at making better ice around the league, they went to the ice makers at Rexall Place for advice on how to make the ice similar to the sheet in Edmonton.

It was harder than everyone else’s. The ice shavings didn’t crystallize like they did in other arenas around the league. Players loved to get out on the ice a little early just because they could feel their speed pick up and give them a little hop in their step. For the goalies, on the other hand, pucks hurt a little more, things happened a little quicker, and for me it was the stuff goalie nightmares were made of.

To step on the ice and look at the banners was intimidating enough in itself. The Stanley Cups and the retired jersey were enough to make you shake in your boots. It always seemed the ice was tilted and the Oilers always started the game up by two on intimidation alone. Of course they never did, it just felt that way.

Can’t Miss: Watch the Oilers’ final game at Rexall Place, live on Sportsnet, April 6 at 5 p.m. MT. Broadcast Schedule | Rogers Gamecentre Live

In 2003 I got my last ever start in Edmonton with the Dallas Stars. I knew before the game if things didn’t go well, it would be my last game. Talk about pressure! Then to know it was going to be in Edmonton, where myself and many other opposing goalies went to die at the hands of Edmonton Oiler greats was a giant task in itself. I think out of eight games I played in Edmonton I played one well.

I went out for the pre-game skate that morning and it was surreal. I just remember looking around thinking this could be my last NHL start ever. The walk through bowels of Rexall Place from the visitors’ room is a long one, the air is crisp and the ice is fast. We finished pre-game skate and I went home for my pre-game nap. Although there was no nap, just thoughts on how was I going to play the game of my life in a building that destroyed my confidence every time I played there.

The game started, I was nervous as hell. I made a pad save on Brad Isbister and immediately felt like I was getting into my groove. I was having trouble playing the puck though, which I usually don’t. I shook it off as nerves but this would foreshadow things to come. The first period ended and I hadn’t let a goal in, a miracle I thought to myself.

The second period came and I think I had 12 straight saves and I was playing great when we took a penalty. The ice immediately started to tilt as It always does in Edmonton, two quick goals against and I’m headed into the third thinking “if I can just hold them here it’s going to be ok.”

In the third I turned my game up a notch trying to salvage anything and go out swinging. Trying as hard as I could, I was fending the Oilers’ attack off, when halfway through the period the unthinkable happened. I went to play a slow dump, had a miscommunication with Derian Hatcher, and threw it off his shin pads. Scrambling back to the net franticly I saw my career flash before my eyes, a horrible miscue and that was the game.

The ghosts of Rexall Place had got me again. We lost and I was correct, that would be my last ever NHL start.

So as I left Rexall, I hugged my parents who were at the game, and told them that would be it. I shed a small tear, and so did my mother. I could see it in their eyes that they knew it too.

I don’t regret that day. In fact I’m thankful for every start I had, every moment I got to play in the NHL. I am truly blessed and lucky.

As for Rexall, like most of the Oilers opponents did in the 80s and 90s, I left through the back door thinking “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

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